Servitude

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on October 10, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, thank you again for this time of worship we have, Lord, and thank you for all the opportunities that we have to share this worship with the world and with others.

I pray, Lord, that as you guide us through our thoughts and scripture day by day — not only now but in every moment that we spend with you — that we would be open to hearing you, that we would be open to seeing you, and that we would be open to transformation and change in our lives, Lord. It’s easy to do what we’ve always done, and it’s easy to look like we’ve always looked, but we pray, Lord, that every day you would move us toward something deeper. We pray that every day you would move us toward a Christ-likeness that reflects your grace and truth in the world, and whatever that takes for us and whatever that means for us, that’s what we pray for. Help us to be open to the uncertainty of that. Help us to be open to the possibilities in that. Help us to be open to a Spirit that moves in ways that are often unpredictable to us. We want to participate with you wherever you go.

We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m going to be in the gospel of John, this morning.

I think that if you ask just about any Christian in the world what it is that’s special about Jesus, you’ll probably get some pretty basic things, regardless of the details. You’ll probably get something along the lines of:

  • Jesus is God’s son.
  • Jesus died and rose from the dead.
  • Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins.
  • Jesus is our lord and savior for those reasons.

You might get other things in there, and how those things are explained might be different from person to person, but those are pretty foundational beliefs. I think that John does a good job of laying some of those things out, so I want to examine that today, and I want to examine, briefly, what that means for us as disciples of Christ that want to live into the likeness of Christ.

It’s a little bit tricky, because John is a very metaphorical gospel. His book is really comparative between Jesus and things like light and life. He uses language of light and dark to emphasize different characteristics of people throughout the gospel, and we don’t really have time to go into all of those little metaphors, so I’m going to try to pull out some of the popular verses. We’re going to examine them, and we’re going to talk about the implication a little bit.

In John chapter one, starting in verse one, it says,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

NIV

And if you’re not familiar with the gospel of John, you don’t know this, yet, but “the Word” is Jesus, and he gets to that a few paragraphs later. Essentially what he argues at the very start of his gospel is that Jesus is with God and that Jesus is God, in the beginning, so it says:

  • the Word was
  • the Word was with God
  • the Word was God

This is more than just relational. This isn’t like me and my wife just sitting together in the same place. This isn’t like if I say, “We were at the movies together.” He says yes, they were together — they were in the same place — but more than that, they were, and they were one — one and the same.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John 1:1, NIV

In verse three, he says,

“Through him all things were made. Without him nothing was made that has been made.”

John 1:3, NIV

So first the Word was, the Word was with God, the Word was God, and creation comes through the Word — all of creation. God’s will is made manifest through the Word and comes to life in creation — the very mind of God. That is, the mind of God that conceived creation is revealed through the Word, and the Word is Jesus.

Verses four to five, he says,

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

NIV

So we see this continuing presence of light and life through the Word, and then in verse nine, he says,

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

NIV

So he gives it a future presence, an incarnation, which we’ll see in a little bit, along with this persistent presence, along with being the source of creation — of light and life — and being united with God — one with God — and the means through which the mind of God is revealed into creation. John is packing all of this into this first two or three paragraphs of this letter, here. He’s really setting the stage for us, and then in verse 10-11, he says,

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”

NIV

So he kind of summarizes verse four through five and verse nine, that we talked about, with this continuing presence and this future presence. He says the Word was, already, the Word came, already, the Word has already been rejected, yet the Word also is, and the Word was. It’s a very poetic introduction to his gospel. He’s really trying to set the stage that the Word of God — the Word, capital “W,” that is, Jesus — is all-encompassing, interwoven not only with God but with all of creation, that he is present, that he will be present, that he is interacting, that he has already interacted — it spans every time frame that you can think of.

Then he gets to verse 14, and he says,

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

NIV

The incarnation of the Word. The glory of the Father, incarnate in flesh, dwelling among creation — the Word through whom all of creation came into being, through whom the mind of God was revealed — the Word that came to what was his own and already was present with what was his own — is now incarnate in the flesh walking among creation.

In verse 18,

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

NIV

So Jesus (the Word) is God revealed. He’s the one that makes God the Father known. God the Son makes God the Father known, and in this, all of God is revealed, which is an incarnate — a fleshly, present, contextual — instance/moment of what we said before: that all of creation came into being through him, so through the Word, the mind of God was revealed, and so, too, John says, in the flesh Jesus (God the Son) reveals (makes known) God the Father.

In other words, Christianity claims — Christian scripture claims — that God is known through Jesus who is united with the Father [i.e.] who is one with God. That’s foundational for Christianity.

This is why a person can believe that Jesus was a wise man and not be a Christian. You don’t have to believe that Jesus was the incarnate Word of God, but if you’re going to claim to be a Christian, you have to wrestle with John’s claim that Jesus is the incarnate word of God in the flesh, and if Jesus is the incarnate Word of God in the flesh, then we have to carry the weight of that with us into scripture and into our lives.

What does that mean for us? What is revealed through Christ?

Well, as we read in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth,” (NIV) and then in verse 16, he says, “Out of his fullness, we have all received grace in place of grace already given,” (NIV) or your translation might read “grace upon grace,” “for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is in himself God and is in close relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:17-18, NIV)

What is revealed through Jesus is God. Right? Verse 18. The Word incarnate, the one and only Son, makes God the Father known, and what we know from Jesus is grace and truth. Right? Verse 14: full of grace and truth. Verse 16: grace upon grace. Verse 17: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

So follow me, here. The Word that reveals God not only through creation but also as incarnated Jesus Christ — the Word that is Jesus that reveals God reveals grace and truth. The key aspect that John hones in on in chapter one is: through Christ, we find grace and truth, and this is a revelation of who God is.

Without grace and truth, we cannot reflect God, and in John 1 in verse 29, John the Baptist makes this claim:

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

NIV

And this is pretty common in Christianity, as well, where you say, yes, the grace of God is the forgiveness of sins. The grace of God is the removal of sins from all the world, from everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, and, of course, we know the famous John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

John 3:16-21, NIV

Now, if you’ve been in Christians circles for a long time, you might be picking up on some things, here. There’s a tension between light and darkness, and John mentioned that back in chapter one. Right at the beginning, in verse five, he says, “The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (NIV) so at the very beginning, he says the Word of God not only reveals the mind of God, not only brings all of God’s revelation into being through creation, not only incarnates and reveals God’s grace and truth, but is also in contention with this “darkness,” and John 3:16 tells us that the darkness is this place that people hide when they don’t want to engage with the incarnate word of God in creation When they don’t want to engage in grace and truth and they give themselves over to their evil deeds, they hide in this darkness.

It’s metaphorical, and the temptation, I think, for a lot of Christians, is to say yes, grace is revealed in Jesus Christ who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, amen! All glory to Jesus, my Lord and Savior, and then to come to John 3:16 and read through that paragraph and say, “That’s right! Everyone who doesn’t call on the name of Jesus is an evil sinner who lives in the darkness!”

The thing is, you have to read the rest of the gospel of John, because John plays around with this metaphor of light and darkness, and what you find is that everyone comes into the light receives Jesus, and everyone who stays in the darkness doesn’t, and almost everybody in the darkness is a leader of the church. Christians tend to take this passage and say, “Oh, the people in darkness are non-believers — the people outside of the church of Jesus Christ,” but it’s not that simple for John. The people who are in the darkness are the people who reject Jesus even as he presents himself in the world. Even as he goes to those people who are the least of these and offers them grace and truth, the people who stand opposed to them are most often the people of God.

John’s gospel doesn’t strike out and condemn people who don’t know Christ. John’s gospel lashes out and reveals the truth about those church leaders and those people in the church who rejected Jesus.

So we get to John chapter 13. John chapter 13, Jesus decides he’s going to confront this head-on in his own disciples. In John chapter 13 and verse one, it says,

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’

“I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”

John 13:1-20, NIV

Jesus instructs his disciples to receive him through his service to them in washing their feet, and then he instructs them in verse 14 to do the same to one another because he has set that example for them. He says in verse 18, “Not all of you are clean in this way,” and John is very clear that he’s talking about Judas and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, but what’s interesting is that he washes Judas’s feet. And he doesn’t say if you don’t wash one another’s feet — he doesn’t say if you don’t serve one another — that you will be like a non-believer. He says if you don’t wash one another’s feet — if you don’t follow my example — you become like Judas, the betrayer.

This is a completely internal experience with Jesus and his disciples. The danger of not following Jesus’s example is not becoming like a person who doesn’t know Jesus; the danger of not following Jesus’s example is crucifying Jesus along with Judas — is becoming like the church leaders in Jesus’s day who brought him before Pontius Pilot and demanded his crucifixion. The danger of not washing one another’s feet is becoming the betrayer of Jesus, and this is why when we talked about James, last weekend, James says in chapter two [that] those who exploit you, those people who take advantage of you, those people among you who are the rich exploiting the poor — they are the ones who blaspheme the name of Jesus. Because you can’t be disciple of Christ and still fail to serve your brothers and sisters in Christ and still assume that you’re going to be among “the eleven” who are clean. That’s not how that works, and Jesus here, in the gospel of John, is clear about that. That is to say, John makes it explicit. Sometimes John is very metaphorical about things, like the Word and light and incarnation and who Jesus is; he tends to like to wax poetic, but here, he actually just says in verse 11, “For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean.” (NIV) And then again, later, when he says, “I’m not referring to all of you,” in verse 18, “I know those I have chosen, but this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me,’” (NIV) we know from other gospels that he then dips his bread into the oil, and Judas does it at the same time. He says the one who dips his hands with me into the bowl is the one who’s going to betray me. Jesus is straightforward about this and blunt about this in all of the gospels.

If you fail to take my example of service to others the way that I have served you in washing your feet, then you have no part with me. Not: if you fail to believe that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the only begotten, who died and rose from the dead… They haven’t gotten there, yet. He tells Peter, “If you don’t let me wash your feet, Peter, then you have no part with me. None whatsoever.” Jesus is revealed, God is revealed, through Jesus’s service, and without John chapter 13, we don’t get to be a part of that.

John chapter four, there’s a story about the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus meets this woman who nobody in the Jewish culture wants to talk to because she’s a Samaritan, and on top of that, she’s a woman, and yet he engages with her in candid conversation at the well. He talks to her about herself, about her relationships, about who he is, about their worship, and then many Samaritans are converted because of her testimony concerning Jesus.

In John chapter four, at the end, there’re two healings — a healing at the end of John chapter four and then a healing at the beginning of John chapter five — where he heals an official’s son who was sick and then he heals an invalid near the synagogue.

There’s the feeding of the hungry crowd in John chapter six, and there’s the healing of the man who was born blind in John chapter nine.

There’s the raising of the dead with the Lazarus story in John chapter 11, and the weeping with the women who have lost Lazarus, their brother, and then in John chapter 13, there’s the servitude of Jesus who washes his disciples’ feet.

These are the stories in John where Jesus exemplifies the service that reveals the grace and truth of God, and it’s fine to say that Jesus’s grace and truth is the grace of the forgiveness of sins, but if you detach that from the service of John chapter 13 and the stories that came before it, then you lose out on what that grace and truth actually looks like in real life. It becomes this floatin enigma of a thing that we can just say, “Oh, yeah: forgiveness of sins.” It’s nebulous. It’s ambiguous, so that we don’t have to put it into words or describe it, and we can talk about sin as this thing that just kind of is inside us or is outside us, and we use that to manipulate and move people when in reality, John says the light shines in the darkness through these moments of servitude.

And I want to emphasize, here, that in John chapter 13, it’s not “servant leadership.” I used to talk about it as servant leadership; you lead by example, and your service to your followers then inspires them to service. It’s not servant leadership. Servant leadership is top-down, still. It’s a way of saying, “I’m still the leader, but I’m going to show you how you ought to conduct yourselves with one another,” and, yes, Jesus says, “I’ve set an example for you,” but this isn’t servant leadership. This is servitude.

Jesus takes off his clothes, wraps a towel around his waist, gets down on the floor, and washes the dirty feet of his disciples before they eat passover. This is not servant leadership. This is servitude. God’s grace and truth are revealed in Jesus Christ through his servitude to his disciples.

Leadership is a consequence of influence, and Jesus’s influence is born of the grace and truth of God that manifests itself in humility, and humility comes from wisdom. That’s leadership in Jesus’s book. If you want to be a leader, leadership is not something you have [and] you then use. Leadership is something you gain as a consequence of humble servitude to the people around you, and look in John chapter 13 in verse one. It says,

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

NIV

So what does he do? He strips down, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. His leadership is born out of love and humility, not the other way around, and that’s where a lot of Christians get it wrong. They say, “Well, I’m here to lead you out of sin, out of darkness, into light,” and they fail to recognize that Jesus’s leadership is born of servitude because of love, and that’s the revelation of grace and truth in the world.

And, of course, as we read in John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is the love first that causes this revelation to be necessary. It is the love first that inspires God to reveal grace and truth through Jesus Christ, and he reveals this in servitude, even toward Judas who he knows will betray him.

A life that reflects grace and truth reflects Jesus. A life that doesn’t reflect grace and truth doesn’t reflect Jesus. To reflect Jesus is to manifest our love for people in service and humility, and that is where wisdom is born, so we judge for ourselves what is a true reflection of Jesus. Judge for yourself what is a true reflection of Jesus, but if you discover that it doesn’t fit in there — if it’s not a true reflection of Jesus — then name it for what it is. As Christians, we need to stop going around pretending that it’s okay for the label of Christianity to be co-opted by people who blaspheme the name of Jesus. It’s not okay.

Jesus’s example in John shows us that grace and truth is revealed through service and humility, and when Christianity is presented as anything other than that — when Christianity is presented as a means of power and oppression and manipulation, when it leans into fear mongering — it’s not a reflection of Jesus and, therefore, should not be called Christianity, and we should name it for what it really is. We should remind people that Jesus’s life leads to the cross before it leads to resurrection.

If you want to think to yourself, “How do we actually recognize these things,” one practical way that I would suggest — and try this this week and see what happens as you look at the world around you… Service and oppression cannot go hand-in-hand, and the service of Jesus is focused more on the people he’s serving than it is on the people who are not serving. In the gospel of John, Jesus does stand up against oppressors, but only when they try to interfere with his service toward others, and what I mean, here, is sometimes people will fight for the sake of fighting. Sometimes you’ll see people who fly the banner of Christ and take the label of Christian who are more interested in fighting against people and opposing people for the sake of opposition than they are in actually helping victims. They’re more interested in “fighting the fight” than they are in serving those they love. When that happens — when you examine a situation and you say, “There’s a lot of opposing going on here, but there’s not very much service going on here,” — that’s usually a good indicator that somebody is not reflecting the likeness of Jesus and is not reflecting grace and truth.

Serve people for the sake of grace and truth and love, and then you will discover what is revealed in Jesus Christ about God. As Paul puts it, faith, hope, and love remain, and the greatest of these is love, and as metaphorical as John gets, he hits that same note. Everything that is revealed about God in Jesus Christ is born out of the love of God and is revealed in grace and truth, and if you look around the world and you don’t see that, then that’s not the revelation of God.

If, however, you are looking for that — even if you haven’t found it, yet; even if you’re still struggling — if that sounds like the kind of God that you are interested in — a God who is present and creates and pursues out of love and reveals Godself in grace and truth, that is manifest in humble servitude, and that gives time to people they love, not for the sake of power — then I invite you to come and meet that kind of God. I invite you to meet that God who claim is incarnate in Jesus Christ. I invite you to come and ask questions and explore with us as we pursue that kind of God, not only in our worship but in our lives and in our communities and in every aspect of everything that we do.

Thank you.

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